Snag in acquiring track may delay rail section


ANNAPOLIS -- The five-mile southern section of Baltimore's new light-rail line might not open as scheduled in May 1992 because of a snag in buying the track, state transportation officials said yesterday.

Mass Transit Administrator Ronald J. Hartman said his agency has been negotiating for more than a year to buy all of the track controlled by the Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad, a small freight hauler, without reaching an agreement.

The drawn-out talks have not caused any delay so far, he said. But construction must begin almost immediately, he added, for the state to be certain of opening the five-mile section on time.

So Mr. Hartman said he plans to ask the federal Interstate Commerce Commission to permit the state to condemn the B&A; track. The track runs from Glen Burnie, the southern terminus of the light-rail route, to the Baltimore line.

"I think our position is we're not going to buy this at any cost," said Mr. Hartman, who appeared before a Senate Budget and Taxation subcommittee yesterday. He declined to say how much the state is offering and how much B&A; is asking for the right of way.

Irwin Brown, the MTA's chief counsel, said the state "shortly" will request that the ICC order the railroad to abandon the line, arguing that it is "being severely underutilized and that the state wants to use it for the benefit of its citizens generally."

A ruling in the MTA's favor would permit the state to ask a court to condemn the track and set a fair market price.

James H. Burnley, the Washington lawyer representing the B&A;, said yesterday that he was surprised that the MTA was talking about going to the ICC, since negotiationswere "going on in quite an intensive way."

But Mr. Burnley predicted that the ICC would rule in B&A;'s favor anyway.

Mr. Hartman said the ICC could take from six months to a year to decide the case. "If it takes six months getting a right of way, then there's a six-month delay" in building the five-mile section, he said.

But MTA officials added it was not certain that the five-mile section would be delayed.

Mr. Brown pointed out that the state and the B&A; could still reach asettlement while the ICC considers the case. Mr. Hartman said the MTA may be able to make up for some lost time by expediting the work.

The B&A; track represents less than one-quarter of the 22.5 miles of light-rail line that the state plans to open in the spring of 1992.

Construction of about 17 miles of the line between Timonium and the southern border of Baltimore, Mr. Hartman said, is on schedule and will open for partial service and testing in April 1992, when the new Camden Yards stadium opens. Regular service is to begin that May.

The MTA plans to open three extensions of the line -- to Hunt Valley, Penn Station and Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- later in 1992.

The federal government must still rule on the state's request that the Urban Mass Transit Administration pay 75 percent of the cost of those extensions.

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